The discovery opens up the potential for highly effective new cancer treatments that are free of serious side effects.
The research team has developed and patented a cancer treatment regime that exploits the unique properties of the molecule – a protein named Cluster of Differentiation 40 (CD40).
Professor Jenny Southgate, from the University of York’s Department of Biology, said: “Most cancer therapies are toxic to all cells and finding a therapy that can kill cancer cells selectively whilst sparing a patient’s normal cells is the ‘Holy Grail’ for cancer researchers.
“By using the urothelial research platform developed by our team, we were able to discover how one promising drug target, called CD40, is able to distinguish between normal and cancer cells, resulting in cancer cell death.”
Tumour cells proliferate by continuously dividing. This places them under considerable stress, but they have developed protective properties that enable them to cope. CD40 removes this protection so that the tumour cells die, but because normal cells are not placed under “oxidative stress” they are unharmed by the protein.
Instead of working purely with tumour cells, researchers made comparisons with the effects of CD40 on normal cells as well as engineered cells that allowed them to mimic the process of cancer development.
Dr Nikolaos Georgopoulos, from the University of Huddersfield, said: “Cancer therapies, such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy, are ‘hit with a hammer’ approaches. Hit as hard as you can and kill the tumours as well as you can. But there is usually some collateral damage. There are side effects.
“We knew this CD40 molecule seemed to be very good at killing tumour cells. So we decided to observe what it does at the molecular level. If we understand what it does and what’s so special about it, we can design our own way to kill tumours. We have now identified exactly why this molecule can kill tumour cells and why it leaves normal cells unaffected.”
The team has also worked on a method of using CD40 in targeted, intravenous bio-therapy by discovering the best way to deploy the molecule – using its ligand to activate it. The discovery has been patented, and the University is exploring commercialisation through a spin-out company – provisionally called ThanatoCure™.
Advanced discussions are being held with a company that specialises in early-stage development of innovative cancer therapies. It is hoped that the company will secure funding in the region of £900,000 for clinical trials that would see colorectal cancer patients receiving the new treatment.
The research is published in the journal, Oncogene.
University of York